Native Nerd column: The words you say will come back to you when you least expect it
The words you say in passing will come back to you when you least expect them.
I don’t know if anyone has said that before, as far as a full-fledged quote goes, but wow, is that statement true.
I had pre-planned another topic for this week’s Native Nerd column, but at about 9:00 pm est last night I received an email from a Native mom in Montana who told me about her son and a Facebook post he had put out. His words struck me to the core. I literally felt his words in my soul.
I discovered that something I had said to this young Native student had resonated with him, many years later.
How the story began
In 2008, my first book came out, titled Native Athletes in Action. As part of my new book promotion, my publisher asked if I would like to travel to Ronan, Montana to the Salish Kootenai tribe as they had decided to incorporate my book into that years’ curriculum at Ronan Elementary. I was thrilled at the thought and even more excited to speak to Native youth.
I had rarely spoken to the public as an author in 2008 but was confident the ancestors would give me guidance. My wife and I had decided to drive because we hadn’t traveled across country by car before. That was another journey in itself, I highly recommend doing it at least once. And truly folks, stop to check out weird sites, we saw several strange and fun general stores and tourist traps and even stopped off at a Wizard of Oz Museum. We loved it.
Arriving in Ronan, Montana
Truth be told, I was a nervous wreck. But I wanted so badly for these young Native warriors to know how amazing they were and always would be. I must have stood up in front of over 40 or more students 15 to 20 times. I am not sure.
A few times I would see a few students perk up. But then I slowly began to realize that they were all listening, in their own ways. I began to also realize that I was talking to young people at perhaps the toughest point of their lives.
They were immersed in their worlds of self-identity and in the midst of group-identity. Peer pressure was at its peak, and reacting outwardly could result in criticism and/or ridicule from students. Those were tough times for me, and with each passing year in our world, I suspect it gets increasingly tougher for youth.
Every time I spoke to a group, I genuinely want everyone to know they are important, they are empowered and that anything we wish to accomplish in life is there for the taking if we are willing to work for it.
The rest of the week was dizzying. I spoke to group after group. They were all amazing, and so filled with promise. I was overwhelmed in a great way.
One night, they were having a school reception of sorts, and the school introduced me as a visiting author and I took a moment to speak with the students, teachers and now parents.
After I spoke to the crowd, making sure to tell the Native youth that they were amazing, that they held tremendous power in their hands, a lone man walked up to me and shook my hand.
In many of the surrounding areas of Ronan, Montana are farmlands and ranches. I feel fairly safe in assuming this man had been a farmer his whole life. His hand was rough and calloused, and he was obviously a person who was unafraid of an extremely hard day's work.
He looked me in the eye and said something I will never forget. “You have no idea what you are doing for these kids.” His look of thanks was astonishing. I must have said thanks, humbled by his handshake. I never saw him again.
11 Years Later - a Facebook Post Blows Me Away
It’s been 11 years since I spoke in Ronan, Montana. I remember so many great things about those young students. I remember the smiles, the laughter — and literally being mobbed when I began signing my books that belonged to the students. The kids all got super excited. I felt like a celebrity. the students were an absolute treasure.
I tried at every moment to tell each student how amazing they were, how much potential they had in life, how much they could contribute to this world. I wasn’t sure what I said might have resonated.
11 years later, I discovered just how much.
On February 28, 2019, just under 11 years from having first visited Ronan, I received an email from a woman by the name of Shelly, who told me her son Camas McClure had made a reference to me in a Facebook post. She wrote to me that her son referred to my visit in Ronan when he was in eighth grade.
She said he had had struggles in life, but overcame them to coach several basketball teams, completed an AA degree in Native American Studies at Salish Kootenai College, and was now pursuing a P-3 Elementary Education degree and this year added Salish Language Educator Degree to his education goals.
I thought, “Wow! Great for him!”
But then she said he mentioned me in a Facebook post, so I read on …
Wasn't myself lately, been going through a rough time had a lot of things on my mind but that only gotten me back to me where I'm at today!!! At some point we end up in a slump no matter what may goes on in our lives or something unexpected comes up!!! You get what I'm saying, I remember when I was in 8th grade a Native American author named Vincent Schilling came to our school for a couple days as our special guest to tell his story on what got him started in journalism especially writing about Native athletes, that really inspired me, and I remember he came up to me and said, "Never let someone tell you, you can't do something with your life." That has been my motivation since and I continue to say that to others who are going through a rough time or are in a slump!!! If this may have motivated you or inspired you in anyway I'm glad I can help out!!!
Here is the post:
As I read his Facebook post, tears streamed down my face. Sure, you really do hope your words of positivity resonate in people’s lives. But I had no idea Camas would remember who I was in any fashion. I was absolutely and profoundly dumbfounded, but so thankful to know something I said stuck with him.
After a week in Ronan, it was time to head back to the east coast. As I was walking out the doors of the school, I decided to ask the principal if I could say a few words over the main intercom to the students. He was extremely gracious and allowed me to. I started to talk and the tears began to flow. It had been a week of inspiration and to see so much promise, so much potential in the lives of young people I was overwhelmed with emotion.
In the middle of speaking, the teachers had allowed the students to leave their classes and come up to the principal’s office. There wer close to a hundred students who began to applaud and say goodbye.
This was an exceptional life moment. As I walked to my car and drove away, tons of small hands waved goodbye at the windows of the school, I was happy to have made an impression, and my heart was heavy having to say goodbye.
The students I spoke to changed me for the better. And every word I told them about how amazing they were and are was one hundred percent true.
I care so much in my soul for the welfare and lives of all these amazing young people - who are now … not so young. They are mom’s and dad’s, artists, and educators, all working for the betterment of this world.
And thank you Camas. I am so incredibly proud of what you have accomplished. You have charged forward into life as a representative and warrior for the ancestors that came before you. Please tell your friends that were your fellow students, that I am proud of them too.
You have all made my life so much better.
And you all have made this world a much more amazing place.
Follow fellow Native Nerd, Vincent Schilling associate editor for Indian Country Today at @VinceSchilling - Make sure to use the Hashtag #NativeNerd